Wednesday 21 February 2018

Richie Sadlier: Leicester may have silenced the critics but things are about to get far noisier

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

During Burnley's 10-game run without a win at the start of last season, Sean Dyche was adamant he didn't pay attention to outside opinions. "I just haven't got time to fill my head full of all that clutter," he said.

It was Dyche's first experience of managing in the Premier League. The club's transfer policy, his team's playing style and his own managerial approach was under scrutiny like never before. "I just see the end goal and that is winning games and being productive and affecting my team. All the rest of it, I just shut it out. It's just noise."

Leicester City's players are the focus of media attention and expert analysis like never before. Conventional wisdom said their early season form would fade away. They hadn't invested enough in their squad and the quality wasn't there. When that didn't happen, it was said that they wouldn't survive back-to-back games against Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City in December. The inevitable slide down the table would then begin.

There were plenty of other reasons put forward in predicting their total collapse, but the only one left appears to be psychological weakness.

Any day now, the enormity of what they are so close to achieving will become too great a load to carry. Given their inexperience of Premier League title run-ins, how will they possibly be able to play normally with so much at stake? The noise, as Dyche described it, will become too much.

I went back to Millwall a fortnight ago, and during the second half of their game with Sheffield United I realised I was doing something very odd. Sitting in the stand as a spectator with some friends, I found myself repeating the same mental exercise I relied on when I was out on that pitch around 15 years earlier. I had developed my own way of shutting out the external influences which, at times, were totally debilitating. I'm sure it will seem ridiculous when I explain the process now, but it was invaluable back in the day to keep me focused.

It began with a quick scan of the advertising boards around the perimeter of the pitch. Particular words would grab my attention. As an example, let's say I chose 'Millwall'. I would replace each letter with a number in the order in which they appear, 1 to 8. Then, I would attempt to re-arrange the sequence of the numbers while maintaining the correct spelling. In this case, the four ls in Millwall could be interchanged and the order of the letters would remain the same. So, numbers 3, 4, 7 and 8 could be swapped with one another without mis-spelling Millwall. That's a simple enough example to use, and hopefully that makes it clear, but the real fun came with choosing words like 'engineering'.

The purpose of the whole exercise was to occupy my mind. I would play around with the various numerical sequences of the different words I chose, repeating them endlessly during the less frantic moments of the game. Like the premise behind guided meditations, focusing on that one thing made it impossible to focus on anything else. Critics, media, team-mates, fans, the manager, the chairman, my agent - this was my way of excluding them all from my mind when it mattered.

They have silenced their critics who said they couldn't stay at the top for this long, but everything they do from here will be analysed in enormous detail. Leicester's players have never faced this level of scrutiny before. They have never been written about as much. There is no shortage of opinions outlining exactly what they need to do from here. How they handle that could be the crucial factor in what they achieve.

In time, when I was playing, I realised it wasn't just the external voices that needed to be silenced. I'm not saying I didn't benefit from learning to shut them out, but it was my own inner critic that needed to be properly dealt with. No matter how well I was playing or how well the team were doing, I could convince myself that failure at any moment was inevitable. You can imagine how unhelpful that was and how badly it affected my performances. And why occupying my mind with numbers and letters made things easier.

I doubt the Leicester players are using this method, but they will need to have something in place to help them through their remaining games. Whatever the result today, things are about to get noisier than they've ever been.

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